Letís Plant Potatoes in the Garden
By Kathy Anderson
Potatoes, taters, spuds…call them what you will, potatoes are a staple in the diet of many people all over the planet. Potatoes are a nutritious, versatile vegetable, and they’re incredibly easy to grow. But before you run out to the garden with your shovel and hoe, there are a few things you should know about planting potatoes.
You may have heard old timers say that potatoes should always be planted on Good Friday. This old wives’ tale is absolutely absurd. Good Friday does not fall on the same calendar date each year and can fall anywhere from early March to mid April. If folks in New England or the upper Midwest tried to plant potatoes on Good Friday, many years they’d be digging through rock-hard soil that was still frozen solid.
Do not plant potatoes too early, while the ground is still icy. If the ground is too cold and wet, the seed potatoes will delay sprouting until the growing conditions are more favorable. This is usually in early March to late April, depending on the climate. Potatoes do tolerate cool soil and a light frost, but not much growth will take place until the soil warms up a bit.
You won’t find potato seedlings or packets of potato seeds for sale at your local garden center. Instead, potatoes are grown from seed potatoes. A seed potato is nothing more than an ordinary potato, with at least one “eye”.
Back in the day before supermarkets, when gardens supplied most of the food put on the table, the last of the potatoes in the storage bin come spring were used for seed potatoes. Wise gardeners set aside their blemish-free, healthiest potatoes for seed. Seed potatoes can be planted whole, or they may be cut into pieces with at least one eye per piece. Seed potatoes with more eyes will grow to produce a larger quantity of potatoes but the potatoes will generally be smaller. Seed potatoes with fewer eyes will produce fewer potatoes, but those potatoes will tend to be larger.
If you choose to cut your seed potatoes into smaller pieces, divide them a day prior to planting. This allows the cuts to heal over slightly, which helps to prevent soil-borne diseases from infecting your potato crop. Always choose seed potatoes that are free from blemishes.
Plant your whole or cut seed potatoes two to three inches deep in good, rich soil. Rows of potatoes should be about three feet apart and the potatoes within the row should be planted twelve inches apart. If your potato crop has suffered from scab in the past, toss a small handful of dry pine needles in the holes beneath your seed potatoes. Along with moving your potatoes to a different section of the garden each year, this will help prevent further scab infection. Potato scab appears as rough patches on the skin of the potatoes.
Depending on the warmth of the soil, potato plants will begin to emerge from the soil anywhere from one to three weeks after planting. When the plants are about a foot tall, use your hoe to mound six to eight inches of soil continuously along the entire row of plants. This is called hilling. Hilling ensures that the potatoes will grow deeply under the soil, away from sunlight which would cause them to become green. Potatoes that suffer from greening will be bitter and the inedible green parts must be discarded.
Keep the potato plants evenly watered while they are growing. A dry period followed by a rainy spell will cause some potato varieties to develop a hollow core. Yukon Gold potatoes seem to be especially prone to this problem.
Another potential problem with potatoes is the potato beetle. The larvae and adult beetles will feed on the potato foliage, and a heavy infestation can damage the foliage enough to reduce your harvest considerably. Watch for the beetle’s yellow eggs on the undersides of leaves and crush the clusters whenever you see them. Larvae are a deep orange color with a row of black spots on both sides, while the adults are a paler orange with black stripes on the body and black spots on the head. The larvae and adults can be picked off the leaves and crushed if there are only a few. An infestation can also be controlled with Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Bt is an organic control that is very safe to use. Look for Bt that is specifically for potato beetles. It is sold in many garden catalogs and garden centers.
Once your potato plants have bloomed, you can begin to harvest small “new” potatoes. Depending on the variety of potatoes you’re growing, this is about eight weeks after planting. In the fall, after the foliage has begun to dry and die back, the entire crop can be dug. Before storing them in a cool, dry and dark place, make sure the surface of your freshly dug spuds has dried a bit. Spread them out in a dry spot out of direct sun, such as a garage or shed, for a day or two before putting them in storage.
Freshly dug, crisp potatoes taste better than any you’ll buy at a grocery store. Grow some yourself and discover how easy and fun it is to produce a staple crop of delicious potatoes for your family.
Kathy Anderson has been an avid gardener for many years and has grown tomatoes by the acre, along with many other vegetables, flowers and landscape plants. Kathy recommends www.freeplants.com as a great place to learn more about gardening.